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Why 'Out Magazine' Is Focusing Attention On The Deaths Of Transgender Women Of Color


According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 22 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States since the beginning of the year. While numbers like this are useful, they can't tell the whole story. And they're likely undercounted for a number of reasons, and they can reduce the people who died to statistics and political talking points.

That's what Raquel Willis wants to change. She's the executive editor of Out magazine. She recently published the Trans Obituary Project, which seeks to honor the transgender women of color reported as victims of violence.

Welcome to the program.

RAQUEL WILLIS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Help us understand how the Trans Obituaries Project came to be. What did you hope to achieve with it?

WILLIS: Well, I hoped to use the Out100, which is our annual issue, to elevate the most influential folks in the LGBTQ+ community to really highlight the transformative stories of trans women of color that we've lost this year.

CORNISH: So the Out100 is usually - this person is doing something great; this person has at the top of their industry. And you wanted to say, look, but there's another story going on.

WILLIS: Yes. And often, those stories are not the ones that we hear - so moving beyond kind of the glitz of visibility that we often focus on and really talk about vitality and why the lives of people we've lost this year are so powerful.

CORNISH: Can you give us an example, a story of a family that is still grappling with the death of their loved one?

WILLIS: Absolutely. Well, there was a young woman named Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a young Afro-Latina woman who had a very loving family, was filled with so much promise. She had entertained thoughts of maybe becoming a nurse or even becoming a correctional officer to help marginalized people in difficult circumstances. And she actually died in Rikers' custody in June. She was held in solitary confinement, and she actually had epilepsy and schizophrenia. And so her story is just this powerful mix of a discussion around transphobia, the need for more holistic health care, around decarceration. And I think the powerful kind of underpinning there is that her family loved her dearly and has been championing for justice around the mysterious circumstances of her death.

CORNISH: You have laid out a 13-point plan to end violence specifically towards transgender women of color. Can you give us one or two of those points that you'd like people to understand?

WILLIS: Yes. So I think that we definitely need to have a transformation around how we discuss violence. I think that we don't often have a holistic definition of what violence looks like. We often only focus on intimate partner violence or domestic violence, but there are plenty of instances of violence that is happening in state custody. But I also think that there needs to be a real discussion on what resources are actually being reallocated to solve these issues.

CORNISH: Is there a disconnect - meaning, after all the attention on, say, bathroom bills or marriage equality, is there a disconnect within the LGBTQ+ community itself - activist community about whether or not this is a priority?

WILLIS: I definitely think that there is a disconnect. I think the disconnect comes because, when you have multiple identities that are all marginalized, the various groups that you're a part of only want to elevate the piece that most resonates with them. In my opinion, the lives of trans women of color should have been prioritized all along.

I think about the history of the LGBTQ+ movement - people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, trans women of color who were forebears to this LGBTQ+ surge in political power over the last 50 years. And so they were talking about the pitfalls of falling into specifically a white, wealthy, middle-class club. And so what we've seen over the decades is a massive increase in visibility for the LGBTQ+ community at large, but that hasn't actually translated into power for those who are most marginalized in our community - people of color, people living with HIV, people who are disabled and then trans people specifically.

And so what has happened in the wake of marriage equality is, you know, there hasn't been a massive restructuring of our community institutions around solving the epidemic of violence.

CORNISH: Well, Raquel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIS: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.